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The price for serving alternative markets

Cattleland Feedyards is willing to pay it

The days of expecting a constant feeder supply in anticipation of sales for finished cattle are no longer the norm for Cattleland Feedyards, a feedlot, cow-calf and farming operation owned by the Karen and Joe Gregory family of Strathmore, Alta.

William Torres

William Torres
photo: Supplied

“Things used to be very easy. We bought the cattle, they’d come into the feedlot, we’d process them, vaccinate them, feed them and off to market they went and we’d start the process over again. Now, we are no longer doing just contracts. Our cattle feeding has become very purchase-order driven,” says Cattleland’s cattle and research manager William Torres.

The Cattleland of today sources as many feeder calves as possible directly from cow-calf producers and finishes them for conventional and alternative markets. The main feedyard has a one-time capacity of 25,000 head that now includes a restricted-access section for 10,000 head in the natural-beef stream. It and a nearby 9,000-head yard leased since 2010 is EU-approved.

One Earth Farms, headquartered at Etobicoke, Ont., is Cattleland’s main client in the natural-beef program. Via this alliance, beef from cattle finished at Cattleland reaches markets across Canada, North America and the EU. Cattleland’s own brand, Canadian Platinum Beef introduced in 2013, has met with success in Dubai and Vietnam.

Torres likens Cattleland’s business model to that of an auto manufacturer offering luxury cars and affordable runabouts. The vehicles will get you to the same end place, but there are very different protocols and processes to produce the end product.

Likewise, alternative markets for beef require protocols, documentation every step of the way and third-party certification to prove the label claims.

The bottom line, in Cattleland’s experience with alternative markets, is reputation is everything.

Torres’ rules for building a good reputation start with dependability. People count on you 100 per cent of the time, not just when it’s convenient. Next is accuracy. There’s no middle ground; your data has to be solid. Finally, be consistent. Whatever you claim to do, you must do it all of the time.

Building blocks

In-house research focuses on testing for residual feed intake and working with Quantum Genetix to test for leptin gene type. All of Cattleland’s 1,000-head cow herd and bulls are tested for leptin gene type along with all offspring and purchased calves so they can be sorted and fed accordingly.

This, in turn, led to alliances with cow-calf producers wherein Cattleland supplies bulls with known performance and the most economically favourable leptin gene type and then buys the resulting calves.

Torres calls it vertical co-ordination because every operation retains its independence while the ability to share information improves efficiencies all around. The practice of direct-sourcing calves has also expanded out of necessity for the natural beef and EU programs.

“Maybe everyone isn’t set up to do the required things for alternative markets, but as long as we know what you did and didn’t do on the ranch, we can accommodate your cattle,” he says.

Cattleland also does research for private companies and organizations.

The Canadian Council for Animal Care, established in 1968 to oversee the ethical use of animals in science, is the certification organization for GAP (Good Animal Practices for Science) Canada. One of the program’s accredited auditors, Feedlot Health Management Services (FHMS) at Okotoks, Alta., audits Cattleland’s research unit annually.

A new era begins

“It made us rethink our ethics and actions. If this was needed for research, why not for the rest of the feedlot? Our goal was to spill the benefits to the commercial level,” Torres explains.

Giving pain medication for castration is an example of one of the obvious benefits staff had seen first in the research unit. Making it a mandatory practice for commercial cattle five years ago did, however, pose the dilemma of how to recover the cost of pain medication needed because someone else had not bothered to castrate the calves at a young age. Their solution was to discount the rancher’s price when more than four per cent of his calves came in as bulls. That sent a message and they began to see fewer intact bulls.

Cattleland moved from formal animal-care protocols being mandatory for research and optional for commercial cattle, to using those protocols being the responsible thing to do for all their cattle.

Gaining full certification under GAP-USA is a bit longer story. U.S. GAP, the Global Animal Partnership, is essentially the policing arm for Whole Foods and this is one of the certifications required by One Earth Farms.

Cattleland has been certified at the step-one level since 2012 and that’s as far as it is likely to go, Torres says. Step one dictates animal density and for Cattleland this meant reducing the number of animals by 40 per cent for each pen for the natural beef program.

The stipulations for an enriched environment in step two are a major barrier, mainly because installing shade structures for all of the cattle would be unnecessarily expensive in western Canada and, in reality, quite dangerous, given their potential collapse under heavy snow loads. Steps beyond this require that operations be pasture-centred and animal-centred, meaning no physical alterations (castration included) and animals never leave the birth farm.

Similarly, the economics of finishing cattle for the organic market didn’t work out because of the cost of bringing in sufficient organic straw for bedding all the way from Manitoba.

In contrast, the audit to become a registered Verified Beef Production operation in 2015 was an enjoyable learning experience, he says. This is Canada’s on-farm food safety program that has recently expanded with formal sections on biosecurity, animal care and environmental stewardship.

“This is definitely the most accurate for what we do,” says Torres. “It’s producer- and industry-led so it makes sense and I can’t say enough good things about it.”

Cattleland participated in the McDonald’s Canada verified sustainable beef pilot and earlier this year was verified sustainable by third-party certifier, Where Food Comes From. This was a valuable learning experience in preparation for the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s program.

Cattleland also participated in the pilot for the Canadian Feedlot Animal Care Assessment Program. This auditable program spearheaded by the National Cattle Feeders Association brought industry, packers, retailers, scientists, veterinarians and non-government organizations onto the same page. It is endorsed by the National Farm Animal Care Council, which oversees the development of national codes of practice.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has oversight of the EU-certification program with regulations to ensure freedom from growth-enhancing promoters, including ionophores, hormone implants and beta agonists. Every operation where the animals are raised and processed has to be EU-certified. All records pertaining to animal health, feed and the production environment at the farm and feedlot must be audited at the operations’ expense. Processing is done at One Earth Farms’ federally licensed and EU-approved plant, Canadian Premium Meats, at Lacombe, Alta.

Torres tells how one load of cattle tested positive for 0.75 parts per billion zearalenol, the active ingredient in Ralgro implants. The naturally occurring form is zearalenone, a mycotoxin that happens to be a potent non-sterodial estrogen produced by fusarium fungi that commonly contaminate growing cereal plants and mouldy stored feed. Cattleland’s nutritionists got on it right away and, because of diligent record keeping, were able to prove that feed, not implants, was the source.

“It was brutal going, thinking that we went through all of the hoops and the entire load of cattle would be rejected,” Torres says.

One Earth Farms’ natural-beef requirements exceed the EU’s in that they do not accept beef from cattle treated with either hormones or antibiotics. Animals treated with antibiotics are removed from the program, but can still qualify for the EU as long as withdrawal times are met — as with cattle destined for conventional markets.

Torres says it takes 1.5 to 2.0 pounds more feed to put on a pound of gain and, because of the slower step-up to the highest grain ration, it takes 60 to 90 days longer to finish calves in the natural program than in the conventional program. The cost of gain is comparable because calves in the natural program finish out at a lighter weight. However, the total cost of finishing calves for the natural market is approximately 50 per cent higher considering that overhead is spread among fewer animals, the additional work and time it takes to meet the requirements, and all of the certification costs.

All on board

After surveying their staff five years ago the feedlot formed an animal-ethics committee composed of Torres, staff and a couple of advisors to write up the protocols and procedures, which helped everyone prepare for the new procedures. Still, there was some resistance when it came time to implement the changes.

“It was kind of anticipated,” Torres says. “Change just needs time because people need to believe in change.”

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